Originally published 5/1/2010.
Contrary to popular belief, kids and dogs are not always “a match made in heaven.” Young children are among the most frequent canine-bite victims, primarily because they do many things (usually inadvertently) that dogs do not like. Luckily, there are a number of efforts a parent can make to ensure that the family dog and the children in the household are not only able to tolerate each other, but thrive together as a training team.
What to train when you’re expecting
Start any necessary dog training long before the baby comes home from the hospital. This is a great time to focus on changing unwanted behaviors your dog may exhibit. Begin early to teach your dog to walk politely on a loose leash next to a stroller, to relax to sounds of crying babies, and to “leave it” and “drop it” with the diaper genie, diapers, baby toys and blankets, and life-like baby dolls. During this pre-baby stage, jumpers should learn “four on the floor,” nippy dogs should be taught bite inhibition, and manners should be refreshed in an already well-trained dog.
Be sure to teach your dog a reliable “go settle” on the mat, and proof for distractions, duration, and distance. The time before a new baby arrives is a wonderful time to focus on crate training if your dog is not yet crate-trained, or to refresh crate skills for crate-savvy dogs. There will be times when you need to keep your dog in a safe place while you care for your new baby. Have favorite chew toys and frozen and stuffed Kongs on hand at all times so that you can give your dog something pleasant and fun to do in his crate.
Try the Dog Training Kit Plus—everything you’ll need to get started teaching basic behaviors. From the Karen Pryor Clickertraining (KPCT) website, the Training the Behaviors You Want page is also helpful, providing step-by-step instructions for training many basic behaviors. Check out Managing the behaviors you don’t want for tips on how to deal with some of the most common canine behavior problems effectively and efficiently.
Appropriate, extensive, and positive early socialization with children and other dogs during a puppy’s critical stages of development (the first four months of life, especially the 7–12 week stage) is the best preparation for safe interactions between a dog and future family members. Training classes can be a big help with the socialization and enrichment processes, as well as with training particular skills for a puppy or older dog. See if any clicker trainers in your area offer courses on preparing your “four-legged kid” for the arrival of a new baby, or for dog and child interaction in general. The Karen Pryor Academy Find-A-Trainer page is a great place to start!
Enrolling your puppy in a well-taught puppy class will set you and the puppy on the right path. Puppies need to learn the critical skill of bite inhibition (“gentle mouth”). If you are enrolled in a class, ask your instructor for tips on desensitizing your dog to common “kid” behaviors—various types of handling (hugging, poking, tail grabs), approaching while the dog has a favored toy or is eating, sounds (crying, shouting, screaming, laughing loudly), and other movements (jumping, rolling over/around, running, biking, skateboarding). Children should not be permitted to bother dogs that are eating or sleeping, sick or in pain, growling, in possession of a favorite toy, or chained, tethered, or otherwise restrained behind a boundary.
Training sessions should always be short and fun. Sessions should focus on rewarding good behaviors and eliminating opportunities to engage in unwanted behaviors; they should strive to create positive associations.
Involving kids in the training process: Infants
Children of all ages can participate in training. This involvement and investment creates strong and healthy bonds with the family dog.
With babies in the house, focus on teaching your dog impulse control exercises. Work with the dog to become confident around the new sounds, sights, and smells brought into the household by the new family member. Reward the dog for calm behavior around your baby—sniffing politely, sitting next to the baby, looking at the baby, voluntarily going to mat or crate.
Use classical conditioning techniques to create positive associations with common elements of “baby life,” including but not limited to being touched by the baby, hearing crying baby sounds, and moving strollers. Classical conditioning is easy to implement and follows this pattern:
- Dog sees or otherwise senses stimulus
- Dog immediately begins receiving food
- Stimulus goes away, food goes away
That’s it! Keep a solid 1:1 ratio of “presence of stimuli: receiving reinforcement.” The stimulus is the sole predictor of food delivery. For example:
- Baby starts crying.
- Dog is immediately and continuously provided with yummy food
- Baby stops crying, food goes away
Use classical conditioning to teach your dog to be comfortable when touched by the baby. Since your baby won’t have the muscle control necessary to pet the dog at first, place your baby’s hands on the dog and follow the classical conditioning steps from above. (This may be easier to do with another adult: one person can feed the dog and one can hold the baby). If your dog avoids your child’s touch, growls, displays his teeth, or displays any stress signals, do not proceed further without the assistance of a qualified behavior professional.
Children who are toddler-age are the most likely to be bitten by a dog, as they tend to be excitable and, like young dogs, lack impulse control. Teach your toddler to be respectful of your dog by discouraging any inappropriate interactions like tail-pulling, grabbing the dog, carrying the dog in uncomfortable positions, and bothering sleeping dogs. Replace unwanted behaviors with alternative, incompatible, and mutually enjoyable ways to interact with your dog.
Teach your child to throw a ball for your dog to fetch, to pet dogs gently (use classical conditioning techniques to make this experience fun for the dog), and, for toddlers learning new verbal skills, to cue basic behaviors like “sit,” “down,” and “touch.” You can also begin to teach toddlers the “Be a Tree” technique from Doggone Safe.
Preschoolers and early elementary-aged children
Children in this age group can learn all of the skills listed for toddlers, plus some new exercises, including the concepts of luring and capturing behaviors. They can also begin to participate in feeding dogs that do not display food aggression, they can help with light brushing and grooming if they are taught to be gentle while doing so, and they can begin to learn canine body language.
This is a great time to print some of the coloring pages and handouts from Doggone Safe that help children learn more about dogs and dog body language. Also consider purchasing a copy of Doggone Crazy, a fun family board game that teaches your child how to live safely with dogs.
The first priority is always to manage for safety. Small children and dogs should not be left together unsupervised for any period of time, and children should be discouraged from rough play with the dog. Rough play on the part of the puppy or the child should be interrupted immediately, Consider a “time out” and redirection to an alternative activity for both puppy and child (a Kong, puzzle, or chew toy for the dog; a game, coloring activity, or other age-appropriate activity for the child). All dog-child interactions demand fair and careful supervision.
At this age, children can learn to teach a dog to offer and maintain basic behaviors. They can also begin cueing and reinforcing behaviors you have already taught the dog, to help generalize the cue.
This is a fantastic age to introduce the “hot/cold” game, a classic seeking game that is the foundation for all future shaping exercises. I prefer to teach the hot/cold game as “click/no click,” as not clicking gives as much information as clicking. Clicking means, “Yes, you are on the right track,” while not clicking communicates, “Try something different.” See what behaviors you can shape your child to do, and what behaviors he/she can shape you to do. Give your child lots of practice and experience playing with people before beginning shaping exercises with a dog.
Once your child is practiced at the click/no click game, it’s time to start shaping some early and easy behaviors. Try interacting with new targets or playing games like 101 Things to Do with a Box. Encourage your child to play the “click anything” game, where you set a timer for two minutes and the child clicks the dog for every offered movement.
Elementary-school-aged and older kids can also be a big help teaching a dog an excellent recall. Hide and seek is a fun game for kids and dogs. Each family member takes a turn hiding in the house, then calling the dog to them. When the dog finds the person hiding, the dog receives lots of treats. Hold on to the dog while the next person hides, and then repeat the process. This fantastic activity, a game kids this age know and love, is fun for everyone, cements a recall, and gets your dog some mental and physical stimulation on a rainy or snowy day.
Be sure to set up both child and dog for success. Focusing on the positive and avoiding harsh punishments is a great way to raise children as well! Provide achievable tasks, and reinforce your child’s efforts at becoming involved in the training process. Incorporating the principles of TAGteaching gives children reinforcement for positive interactions and allows children to be more enthusiastic participants in the training process.
Some dog training schools have classes specifically for “tweenage” dog handlers; many schools will allow tweens to be the primary handlers, provided there is parental supervision.
Video-gaming tweens and teens make great dog trainers—they have the best hand-eye coordination and timing! Tweens can shape new and complex behaviors, walk well-trained dogs, clean up after and bathe the dog, teach younger children how to interact appropriately with dogs, and even compete in a variety of dog sports as junior handlers.
Consider introducing your tween to new training books and videos. Suggest that your tween write a book report for school, using a book about positive reinforcement dog training. I recommend Good Dog! Kids Teach Kids About Dog Behavior and Training, written by tweens, for tweens, available from the clickertraining.com store. I also recommend any of the How of Bow Wow videos, also available from the store.
Teenagers can do the vast majority of dog ownership tasks traditionally allocated to adults, with the important exception of handling aggressive or reactive dogs. Teens can take dogs to training classes, teach new skills and behaviors, exercise the family dog, clean up after the dog, take the dog to the veterinarian or groomer, and more. Teenagers should not be permitted to handle aggressive or reactive dogs, or those dogs that tend to pull strongly and dangerously on leash, until the dog is taught reliability in these instances by an adult (whenever possible, under the direction of a behavior professional).
Many teenagers consider a career in animal behavior. To explore the field, there are many books and DVDs available, as well as great volunteering opportunities for hands-on experience at rescues and shelters, and numerous academic programs available both at the university level and through vocational schools. If your child is 18 years of age and has some experience working with animals, Karen Pryor Academy offers a top-notch educational program for dog trainers. Some trainers offer internships or apprenticeships, too.
Safety for both dog and child correlates directly to the quality of the relationship you've built between them through training. You can control the quality of this relationship, making it better through positive training techniques or making it worse through fear and intimidation.
Involving your children in positive training interactions with the family dog really is a win-win situation. Some of the responsibility of dog ownership becomes shared with the children in the household, children learn the life-long skills of how to interact appropriately, gently, and sensitively with pets, and the family dog learns that being around his human siblings is the most fantastic experience in the world.
The more safe and appropriate fun your dog has with your children, the less likely he will be to bite them. Start engaging your child in your dog’s development today!